Epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) is frequently amplified and/or mutated in a number of human tumours and abnormal signalling from this receptor is believed to contribute to the malignant phenotype seen in these tumours. Gefitinib is a small molecule inhibitor that specifically binds and inhibits the EGFR tyrosine kinase and has been shown to inhibit the growth, proliferation, survival and invasion of a range of tumour cells overexpressing EGFR. However, clinical response to gefitinib has failed to correlate with EGFR levels and activity, indicating that other molecular mechanisms such as downstream signalling and mutations could be of importance in predicting clinical response. We therefore investigated the effect of the specific EGFR inhibitor gefitinib on the phosphorylation level, signalling and growth of cells expressing the naturally occurring constitutively active EGFR variant EGFRvIII, a low nontransforming level of EGFR and a high transforming level of EGFR. Results show that levels of gefitinib sufficient to suppress EGFR phosphorylations, EGFR-mediated proliferation and EGFR-mediated anchorage-independent growth are not sufficient to inhibit these features in cells expressing EGFRvIII. Furthermore, the data indicate that long-term exposure of EGFRvIII-expressing cells to low concentrations of gefitinib (0.01-0.1 microM) result in increased phosphotyrosine load of the receptor, increased signalling to ERK and stimulation of proliferation and anchorage-independent growth, presumably by inducing EGFRvIII dimerisation. Higher concentrations of gefitinib (1-2 microM), on the other hand, significantly decreased EGFRvIII phosphotyrosine load, EGFRvIII-mediated proliferation and anchorage-independent growth. Further studies are needed to investigate the implications of these important findings in the clinical setting.